Category Archives: Religion

A (Now) Open Letter to Reasons To Believe

Open letters are usually letters of critique. The letter I am making public below, however, is a letter of thanks to the creation science ministry called Reasons to Believe, founded by Christian astronomer Hugh Ross. I wrote the letter in April 2015 some time after reading Ross’s book, A Matter of Days. I am publishing it here because I desired at some point to write about why thinking about the physical age of the world is important for Christians, and realized that this letter already contained a good introduction to my thoughts.

Dear Reasons to Believe:

My purpose is simply to thank Dr. Hugh Ross and your ministry for the work you do, and to tell you about the impact Dr. Ross’s book A Matter of Days has had on my perception of the physical world.

I am 32 years old, and, by God’s grace, have always been a Christian. But growing up, it was fairly assumed that being a Christian and taking the Bible seriously meant holding to a young earth creationist model of origins, which I did. Like many young people, I found science very interesting. That interest in scientific topics never faded (though I did not study science in college). In high school I read Henry Morris’s Scientific Creationism, which is a heady tome for someone that age. Though much of it was beyond me, I basically understood the arguments from biochemistry against abiogenesis, which were extremely compelling. As time went on, I began to understand other things, like the rudiments of information theory; irreducible complexity in the cell, in organs and higher organisms, and even in ecosystems; and the case these discoveries made for intelligent design. If the creationists I was reading had done anything well, it was exposing the flaws in evolutionism.

But of course, there was also the issue of the age of the cosmos. Understand, I not only enjoyed reading creation science, I actually attended San Diego Christian College (formerly Christian Heritage College), cofounded by Dr. Henry Morris himself. Henry Morris, John Morris, Duane Gish, and Ken Ham were household names for us. I had from time to time visited the Institute for Creation Research museum. I was familiar with the arguments for a young earth and a global flood, which at the time seemed sufficient. There was no real argument for a young universe, though we all expected this to be forthcoming as science advanced. Until then we just assumed it was young and that explanations for its apparent age would emerge. For a while, I was quite excited about Russell Humphrey’s and John Hartnett’s white hole model.

It is only over the past year or so that I began to doubt the idea of a planet less than 10,000 years old. But after reading a useful little title by Keith Mathison called A Reformed Approach to Science and Scripture [currently free for Kindle], I began to realize in a clearer way what I would have affirmed verbally all along—namely, that natural revelation from God in the physical world around us is a source of true knowledge, when properly understood, and that it may be helpful on some occasions in clarifying the meaning of certain things revealed specially in the Bible.

At the same time, I was losing faith in “appearance of age” arguments. These seemed to suggest that even if many lines of carefully considered data all converged to indicate an age of the universe or the earth of billions of years, these lines of data either must be completely misunderstood or they may be authored by God, despite being practically illusory. Even many YEC scientists were rejecting the “light in transit” explanation of visible distant stars, because supernovas greater than 10,000 light years away would requires us to believe the exploded star never really existed and that the perceived explosion was simply a light show God had made. This obviously has unsettling philosophical ramifications about God’s way of communicating, and our belief that the world we live in is real, and not an illusion, as the Bible says (and contrary to some eastern and new age views), and that God has given us senses that accurately perceive this real world, as the Bible assumes. Appearance-of-age explanations for other phenomena, whether geological or astronomical, are likewise problematic.

I began to research interpretations of Genesis 1-2 from Gorman Gray, Meredith Kline, and Mark Futato. This lead me to consider for the first time that a young-earth interpretation may not be the only interpretation that respects the text or authorial intent.

Still, I did not yet know just how compelling the evidence for an old earth was, nor how thin arguments for a young earth were. Besides, in all my reading of science articles from YEC sources, I had heard of this “Hugh Ross” character many times, and knew he was up to no good! But, after opening up to the possibility of an old cosmos, I was interested, hungry even, for more information. I began perusing Reasons.org. Eventually, I wanted to find out what RTB had to say about all this in depth. Still being slightly suspicious, and on a budget, I didn’t want to pay full price for Dr. Ross’s opus, so I “donated” ten dollars to RTB and got the book as a “free gift.” Sorry!

I devoured the book. I sometimes comment that I read it in “a matter of days.” It helped me understand the large volume of evidence for an old earth and universe. This volume of evidence is a real problem for a YEC interpretation of the Bible. YEC proponents often (rightly) point out that facts don’t interpret themselves, and that there are facts and then there are interpretations of the facts. This is true. But likewise there is the text of Scripture, and there are interpretations of it. A true interpretation of the Bible will submit to the Bible’s literary forms, and will integrate the whole, and will not turn a text on its head—words do have understandable meaning, and interpretation has definite limits. So I am not saying the Bible can be “interpreted” to accommodate just anything. On the other hand, this must also be true of natural revelation, since God is its author. Interpreting facts of nature in such a constrained way so as to make them basically incomprehensible also does damage to the idea of God as a revealer of truth, or about the possibility of science at all. And the Bible encourages science (e.g., 1 Kings 4:33). The more we discover about the universe, the more material we have for which to praise a mighty and wise God. There is no need for me to repeat back to you all of your own reasons to accept an old age of the earth. Suffice it say I have been convinced that the earth is old.

I used to view all of secular science with a degree of suspicion. Granted, many of these sources begin with a presumption of atheism. Not that all the contributors are atheists. I simply mean that they will only allow for naturalistic causes of all things. But now I find reading from Nature, National Geographic, or the Smithsonian can be much more exciting, because there is no need to be constantly denying the old-cosmos timeline that is everywhere present. There will always be the need to read all sources with a discerning mind. But maybe these scientists do have much to teach, often unbeknownst to them perhaps, about the glories of the Creator. Maybe they have much to teach about the realities around us—things we can learn. (John Calvin thought so.)

After finishing A Matter of Days I read the Presbyterian Church in America report on the hexameron cited in Dr. Ross’s footnotes. I will also read the Westminster Seminary report. Being Reformed (Baptist) in my own understanding of Scripture, I have much respect for these sources and what they say about the acceptable ranges of interpretation for Genesis. Thank you for pointing them out.

But most importantly, thank you for pointing out the facts of God’s world. God’s people are to be a truth-seeking people. Truth is truth. Believing in a God of truth and revelation, and in an intelligible world created by a law-giver who gives us sensory perception and the laws of logic themselves, and who upholds the universe by fixed and uniform laws, we can pursue the clues of nature methodically to come to accurate conclusions. The irony is that it is the Christian alone who understands the basis in God for math, logic, uniformity of nature, and language. It is this pursuit of truth that concerns me most. It is this, I fear, that YEC proponents may be giving up in order to adhere to their tradition. Dr. Ross’s book was a real eye-opener for me, and I pray that RTB can continue to impact the world for Christ by pursuing truth in all spheres, both theological and scientific.

Sincerely,

J—

 

Rediscovering the NIV

Choosing a Bible translation to read is something any Christian who cannot read the biblical languages must do. And that means most of us. For some people groups, there may be only one translation of the Bible, so the “choice” is not so difficult. For English speaking Christians, the wealth of versions available may make the task confusing. Personally, I have been attracted to a few different translations over time, but as of recently, seem to be landing where I began—the New International Version—and this comes as somewhat of a surprise to myself. I have decided to write an overview of how I got here.

In middle school in the mid-nineties, I had a New International Version Bible my parents got for me. It was a paperback Bible that I took to church, with notes and anecdotes geared toward teenagers. Then, I didn’t think too much about one translation versus another. When I got into high school, I began to take my faith more seriously, and to study the Bible exegetically. Our pastor David Jeremiah preached from a New King James Version. I was looking for a more “serious” Bible version, which to me at the time, roughly meant more literal (or “formally equivalent”—formal equivalence means attempting to retain the form of the original language, including a more word-for-word approach to translation that often transfers over word order even if it sounds awkward in the target language). The NKJV is one of the more formally equivalent translations, and I began using one probably in around 1997 or 1998.

I attended a Christian college beginning in 2003. I was still using the NKJV, and had a compact version I took to chapel. This had been my daily Bible for years at this point. However, I began to learn more about manuscript transmission and traditions, and realized that the textual basis for the KJV and NKJV New Testament does not conform as much as to what was originally written as the textual basis used for most 20th-century English Bibles. I began to think about switching to something else. As a literalistic translation, the New American Standard Bible was one of the foremost competitors in my mind. But a new Bible translation was gaining popularity and endorsements from many of the Christian leaders I respected and being adopted in churches and by people I respected. This was the English Standard Version, whose translation committee was chaired by the venerable J. I. Packer. I began reading it and in time made the switch to the ESV.

While an essentially literal translation, the ESV sanded out some of the rough edges of the NASB, and certainly of the NKJV. I used the ESV as my primary Bible for ten years, from about 2005 to 2015. And I don’t regret it. The ESV is a quality translation of the Scriptures.

Still, the ESV can at times be stiff in its rendering. I am no linguist, but my college degree is in English literature, and I have a great appreciation for elegant prose and poetry. The ESV, while doing better in this area than the NASB or NKJV, can nonetheless sound stilted. (Mark Strauss, in a friendly manner, points out many amusing examples in an article on the ESV.) The more I wanted something that translated into natural English, the more I realized I might look to another version. Indeed, I was starting to be convinced that a literal rendering is not always the most precise way to translate, in terms of successfully carrying over the meaning of the original language—which is, lest we forget, the objective of translation.

And so, I began reading the less-known New English Translation. This was a less literal translation (more “dynamically equivalent” than formally equivalent), but I found it to be precise, and the translators’ notes that accompany it were illuminating. I poured over them for hours, and I will love having my NET full-notes Bible to refer to. I decided to give this translation a shot at becoming my primary Bible in place of the ESV. I read the NET as my main Bible for a full six months. As to the epistles of the New Testament and history sections of the Old Testament, I really enjoyed the NET. It used much more natural-sounding language than my trusty ESV, but did not sound informal. Where it tended to fall short was in poetic and prophetic passages, which make up a very large portion of Scripture. The Psalms sounded dryer—less beautiful somehow. Something about the cadence of more traditional translations was diminished. There were also a few very specific translation choices that disappointed me. Let me give a few examples.

  • The NET translates “man of God” as “prophet” often in the Old Testament. Since the Hebrew word for prophet is also used in the Old Testament, it seems there may be some reason for calling a prophet a “man of God” on various occasions.
  • The NET often translates “those who fear the Lord” as “the Lord’s faithful followers.” This example removes something, it seems to me, about the emphasis of the phrase. No doubt those who fear the Lord can be described as his faithful followers, but the fear of the Lord is a major theme that is not to be missed. If you thought that the translation might be misunderstood by an English-speaking reader today, you could always render it something like “those who revere the Lord,” which seems to me to clear up the meaning while retaining more of the original nuance.
  • The NET also frequently translates “my soul” as “me” in the Psalms. Meaning for meaning, this is acceptable, but the poetic expression of saying, for example, “My soul also is greatly troubled” (ESV) rather than simply “I am absolutely terrified” (NET) has a great force to it that I am sad to lose.
  • Finally, the NET translates “under the sun” in Ecclesiastes as “on earth,” an accurate but dry reduction of the original poetic line from the Teacher in that profound book.

It was these few complaints that made me turn to the New International Version to see how it handled the poetic and prophetic passages. I found that the familiar beauty of the traditional renderings was there in full force, but often with even greater clarity or elegance than in the more literal translations.

  • For example, 1 Kings 12:2 in the NET says “But God told Shemiah the prophet ….” In the NIV we have, “But this word of God came to Shemiah the man of God ….” Here the NIV follows the form of the Hebrew a lot closer than the NET. The NIV does this as long as the original form sounds natural in English and will be understood.
  • Psalm 6:3 in the NIV reads, “My soul is in deep anguish.”
  • The NIV also retains “those who fear the Lord” in the many places it shows up in the Old Testament. For example, Psalm 25:12 reads “Who, then, are those who fear the Lord? He will instruct them in the ways they should choose” in the NIV as opposed to “The Lord shows his faithful followers the way they should live” in the NET. This is because the NIV is in general more literal (and hence “traditional”) than the NET, but less literalistic than the ESV.
  • And in Ecclesiastes, as we would expect, the Teacher muses and laments over the meaninglessness of life “under the sun.”

So, I began reading about the NIV translation philosophy and history, and its initial and current reception by conservative evangelicals. I watched Douglas Moo’s talk on Bible translation given on the 50th anniversary of the commissioning of the original NIV translation committee. What I found was very positive and gave me new appreciation for the work of the NIV translation team both in the 1960s and today. I had not considered the NIV for a long time because I thought I had “out grown” it in a way. I had come to imagine the NIV was for beginner Christians. I think now that I was wrong about that. By translating into natural contemporary English, the NIV is often more accurate than word-for-word translations, for indeed a too-literal translation is not a complete translation from the old language into the target language. It’s like a 90% translation, where all it has translated is the lexicon, but not the form and style, from one language to another. On the other hand, playing too loose with the original words will reduce the perception of the wordplay and word pictures God may have wanted us to see. The NIV (and I realize this is the very cliché that almost every new Bible translation claims about itself), but the NIV really does balance accuracy, rich expression, and readability very, very well. Rediscovering the NIV has been like running into an old friend you had almost forgotten about, and finding you could rekindle the friendship.

Some Quick Thoughts on the Age of the Earth

It occurs to me that if the earth were young, its age would be hotly debated among secular scientists, as they were torn between the weight of the geological evidence and the timespans necessary to permit biological evolution, which they would need to hold to as a foundation of their naturalistic assumptions. As it is, science at large has reached total unanimity regarding the age of the earth, and the debate rages only within the church (including among Christian scientists) whose members are torn between the weight of the geological evidence and the timespan restraints imagined by some to be required by the Bible. The very fact that the debate about the age of the earth is raging in the church and not the secular scientific world is a strong indication that the earth is old. Indeed, as old as scientists say it is.
This is not because scientists are smart and Christians are dumb. Nor is it suggesting that in other questions scientists do not argue among themselves. Rather, this is an observation about which group of people—the scientific community or the Bible-believing church—is finding within their ranks apparent conflict between observations of nature and another perceived restraint on the limits of their belief. If the earth were young, it would show itself to be so. But secular science could not easily agree with such a conclusion, since it would preclude evolution. Thus they would be doing the bickering, while Christians happily and harmoniously acknowledged the youth of the planet. On the other hand, if the earth were old, it would show itself to be so, and some Christians would find this difficult to allow, do to a particular interpretation of the first eleven chapters of Genesis; others would permit the record of nature to inform their Bible interpretation and argue that the earth is a few billion years old, in accordance with the scientific findings and not at odds with Scriptural teaching. Thus the church would be those at discord, while the secular world would go on with the understanding of a billions-of-years-old earth, not thinking twice about it.
 Now, all this is based on the assumption that the age of the earth will be evident in the examination of the earth itself, if done carefully and corroborated over a length of time. If one assumes the biblical notions that truth is absolute, that it is that which corresponds to reality (i.e., truth=facts), that the world is real and not an illusion, that real history preceded the present, and laws of physics are constant, then the age of the earth ought to be discernable via the scientific method.
 Interestingly enough, the Bible itself refers to the mountains several times as being “ancient,” “age-old,” or “primeval.” One of these instances is in a blessing given to the tribes of Israel by Moses near the end of his lifetime in Deuteronomy 33:15. This would have been in the neighborhood of 1405 B.C. Now, according to a strict young-earth timeline, adhering closely to the biblical timeline as calculated by Bishop James Ussher in his Annals of the World, Moses would have said this about 2600 years after the creation of the world. This would be pushing the lower limits of “ancient” or “age-old” in my opinion, especially given the fact that pre-Flood humans could live naturally over 900 years. But it gets more difficult. Young-earth creationists believe that the topography of the present-day earth was born out of the cataclysmic geological upheaval that occurred at the time of the Noahic Flood. This means, of course, that the age-old hills were not created during creation week, but in the aftermath of the Flood. This means that the hills were in fact no older than 943 years—less actually, since this is based on when the flood began, and does not take into consideration how long it took for the continental land masses to move and reshape the terrestrial landscape. Moses at this time was 120 years old. These ancient hills, then, were not eight times older than he was. Now, I might refer to Independence Hall in Philadelphia as old, but I would hardly refer to it as ancient. I get the distinct impression that Moses, the author of Genesis, believes these hills to be much older than 1000 years.

Irrelevant Doctrine?

If you think of theological “doctrine” as irrelevant, you aren’t thinking of the right doctrine. Or maybe you’ve heard the right doctrine served up in dull and uninspiring ways. If so, I’m sorry this has been your experience, because doctrine is the very thing that ties you to the story of God’s saving power. Looking for something that makes the Bible relevant to your life? If that’s your primary goal, you may actually have a hard time finding it. But if you simply study its teaching, then it’s importance to you personally will not fail to jump out.

The Bible records a lot of history. It tells us story after story about things that have happened. Those things are interesting. They are often fascinating. But so is a history of World War II. So is the Lord of the Rings, for that matter. The stories in the Bible are not just true stories, however. They are a purposeful weaving together of the acts of God on behalf of his people, in anticipation of the coming Messiah, of the coming Messiah himself, or of the acts of the apostles after the Messiah had come. But what of it? What does that mean for me?

Well, these are stories of God acting to save his people from their sins. Are you one of God’s people? How do you know? That’s a doctrinal question, and the answer is not in the story, but in its explanation. Doctrine explains the meaning of the story and our part in it. For example, here’s story: The promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. Okay, great. Now here’s doctrine: So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith …. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

The doctrine takes the historical fact and applies it to YOU. The doctrine tells us what the story means to us personally. Let’s take another example. We know Jesus was delivered up to Roman crucifixion by Pontius Pilate. We know that he was subsequently raised from the dead. That’s interesting—especially that last part. And it’s a great story. But without the doctrine it remains mostly disconnected from us in time and space. So now, let’s allow the apostle Paul to apply the doctrine. Jesus, he says, “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” The doctrine, which gives us the meaning of the story and reveals where we come into play and how it affects us, is what draws us in and makes the ancient history our story too. Jesus was raised, yes … but he was raised for OUR justification. Ah, now that’s doctrine!

John MacArthur: What if my Adult Child Comes Out as a Homosexual?

The following video posted by Alpha and Omega ministries is a ten-minute discussion of John MacArthur’s answer to the question, “What do you do if your adult child comes out as a homosexual?” As we would expect, both John MacArthur and James White understand and articulate the appropriate response to such an event. As we would also expect, MacArthur has been getting criticized on the Gay Voices page of the Huffington Post website. The kind of hatred, ignorance, and incivility sure to be represented in that forum are so predictable that I’ll kindly save myself the ulcer and forgo visiting the page for myself. Besides posting Dr. White’s video, I wanted to make a comment. Dr. MacArthur is receiving criticism from many angles for his biblical answer, to be sure. One of the things that many people will hate about his stance is precisely what I admire: MacArthur’s refusal to idolize his own children.

I have heard stories of people, including one Republican politician as well as others, who believed in natural marriage until their own children professed to be gay. The “change of mind” caused by such a revelation is difficult for me to understand. I would ask, “Before your child was homosexual, you were aware that other people’s children were homosexuals, right? So how could your own child’s sexual orientation possibly affect your belief on the subject? What new light could it throw on the foundational premises that upheld your original conclusion?” The answer? The “foundational premises” were actually missing, and these people had not really “concluded” that the natural view of marriage was the correct one—they simply believed it by default, by tradition, by inheritance, or because it was expedient. But expediencies change, and empty tradition* can be challenged by any change. If your belief about marriage and sexuality is ungrounded in facts and argument, then it can be easily toppled without facts or argument—but simply by a new situational pressure or an emotional reaction. Such as your own child’s sexual orientation. But of course, someone, your child or someone else, being gay is not an argument. It’s just a fact. The fact needs to find its place in the arguments.

John MacArthur is right. He refuses to seat his own son or daughter on the throne of God by favoring his affection for them over God’s instructions. In an environment where “love” is misunderstood, MacArthur’s obedience to God and love for his hypothetical gay child will also be misunderstood. But don’t be surprised if the world hates you … just keep loving them back.

*Empty tradition may even include traditions that are true and have plenty of factual basis for practice, but whose bases have been forgotten or neglected and are now running on sheer momentum, either for the community or the individual.

Psalm 111:2

“Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.”

The Bible leaves no doubt about the greatness of the works of God. Our experience should leave no doubt about the greatness of works of the Lord. And we who delight in God should also delight in what God has accomplished. Psalm 111 was read in church this morning, and I took particular notice of verse two. Here, the psalmist says that all who delight in the works of the Lord study the works of the Lord. The NIV says they “ponder” them, and The Message paraphrases the verse by saying, “God’s works are so great, worth a lifetime of study—endless enjoyment!” Indeed, for the child of God, to study God’s works is to take enjoyment in them as they reveal with greater depth the power, wisdom, and goodness of the Almighty.

Here is a call to consider, to chronicle, to analyze, and understand the works of God. I do not mean we can fully comprehend the reasons for all God’s works, the methods behind all his acts, the interworking of all his plans—or even discover everything God has done. But we can try our best. So long as we refrain from useless speculation about what God leaves hidden and train our minds to examine the works of God that he has revealed, we are doing the right thing and strengthening our ability to exalt God properly.

Studying the works of the Lord involves, as I see it, two broad branches of knowledge. It may involve more than this, as God is creator of all things, visible and invisible, and the ultimate cause of all history. God’s decree includes all things that exist and all things that occur. Hence history is a subject that deals with the works of God indirectly (i.e., via second causes). But when I think of the study of the immediate works of the Lord, I think of especially of theology and science.

Theology is the careful study of the special (Scriptural) revelation from God to humankind. Of course, theology includes more than God’s actions. It also includes God’s being as well as our relation to God, angelology, ecclesiology, etc. But all Bible study is theological in nature, and therefore to study the works of the Lord in the history of redemption is to study theology. The great miraculous works of God in the history of Israel may be more keenly in the mind of the psalmist here, though perhaps not exclusively. But it is clear that the verse applies to the entire portfolio of God’s works. If you are amazed or comforted by them, then study them. If they bring you wonder and delight, then study them. They speak to us about God’s love, God’s holiness, God’s power to save and to judge, and God’s plan for the ages. Study all the Bible says about what the Lord has done.

Science is the careful study of the general (natural) revelation from God to humankind. As such, as I have said previously, science is a kind of theology in its own right, examining, as it were, the artifacts of God. As R. C. Sproul has pointed out, general revelation is just as infallible as special revelation when it comes to conveying truth. Any fact we glean about nature is a fact gleaned about a creative act of God, and thus about God himself. Our interest in the great “works of the Lord” must extend to all his works, and this includes his works of creation. Certainly we see a biblical precedent for this. I remember the first time I realized that King Solomon was an amateur botanist, zoologist, and ornithologist who composed descriptions of local flora and fauna. This is revealed in a single verse in 1 Kings, which says “he spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall. He spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish” (4:33). The NET Bible puts it in more modern terms: “He produced manuals on botany, describing every kind of plant, from the cedars of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows on walls. He also produced manuals on biology, describing animals, birds, insects, and fish.” Remarkable! Christians have reason to be more excited about science than anyone else, because they know the Maker of “all things visible” (the earth, the elements, life, the whole visible universe) and “invisible” (not only spiritual entities, but radiation, gravitation, magnetism, nuclear forces, energy, and possibly dark matter, plus whatever else may be out there). Delight to study these things.

Needless to say, general revelation is subject to misinterpretation, especially when approached from the outset with a rejection of special revelation (which is more explicit). But special revelation is subject to misinterpretation, too. Furthermore, like non-Christian scientists, scientists who do accept the authority and divine origin of the Bible can and do misinterpret natural revelation. This is the nature of science and the need for the scientific method. But this should not discourage the study of science, since it is still the study of the works of the Lord. Both scientists who do and scientists who do not believe the Bible will, as a result of their fallible science-study of infallible natural revelation, get things right and things wrong about God’s works. Likewise, those who are and who are not true children of God will, as a result of their fallible Bible-study of infallible special revelation, get some things right and some things wrong about God’s works. Wrong ideas about God’s works are to be corrected by ongoing study, whether in the realm of science or in the realm of theology.

By God’s grace, human beings have gained very much knowledge about the works of the Lord in creation by Christian and non-Christian scientists alike. Every fact published by any atheistic scientist, every new discovery disclosed in any secular journal by any institute or organization, adds yet another reason to awe at the glory of God. Even many who scoff at theism have discovered by their good research wonder upon wonder performed by God. There is no danger for the Christian in studying those wonders (scientific facts). Praise God for the good science happening globally. Nevertheless, Christians should not be content to leave the studying to the world. No, indeed! The psalmist says the works of God are studied by “all who delight in them.” Christians, that’s us. It doesn’t mean you personally have to be a scientist or a professional theologian. But if you delight in the works of the Lord, delight to learn about them, about all of them—facts about the miraculous redemptive works of God recorded in Scripture, and facts about the creative works of God recorded in the natural world around us. Even facts about the providential work of God upholding the cosmos and caring for his creation. They are all equally works of the Lord, on display for our education and delight.

The Supremacy of God In Hip-hop

A recent evangelical conference associated with the National Center for Family-integrated Churches recently caused an unwelcome stir among believers when a panel of speakers was asked to comment on Christian rap music. I have seen the video of the panelists’ responses and was surprised, upset, and discouraged to hear them one by one in unanimity offer blanket denouncements, sometimes in very strong terms, of Christian hip-hop. Thankfully, there have been a number of appropriate responses by well-respected Christian thinkers, including one by Albert Mohler and a statement approving of Christian rap by Samuel Waldron, who was also a speaker at the NCFIC conference, but not on—and, I believe, unaware—of the small panel that addressed Christian rap. There have also been apologies offered by the host Scott Brown, and by at least one panelist. Additionally, a discussion with Dr. James R. White of Alpha and Omega Ministries and rap artist Shai Linne regarding this topic is planned for later today. I happen to know that James White has a positive view of several current Christian rap artists, who produce excellent biblical material.

Nonetheless, I feel compelled to offer a few thoughts of my own. One reason is because I feel strongly about the Christian artisan in general. Another is that I have personally been greatly blessed by the music of several contemporary Christian rap artists. In fact, I have been more blessed by their music than by any other form of Christian pop music. So let me address some thoughts offered at the conference.

It was repeated by a couple panelists that it is not only important what we say, but how we say it. That is, form matters. Form as well as message should be under the authority of Scripture. To this I give a hearty Amen. How this indicts Christian rap was never really explained, and I can’t figure it out myself. It would certainly prohibit handing out tracts at a bikini car wash, even though that might attract more people. It would likewise prohibit using force or violence to evangelize. When it comes to music, this principle becomes a little more esoteric. Certainly, any art produced by a believer should aspire to recreate, as Albert Mohler said, what is good, beautiful, and true. There are some forms of music that I believe are not beautiful. They involve screaming. But even here, I would hesitate to take a dogmatic stance. Mohler further pointed out that even the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, who made music explicitly in the service of the Lord, was accused in its time of “using crude structures, lowly themes, and of borrowing from unworthy musical sources.” This does not necessarily mean that no form of music is unacceptable. But anyone who listens to the Christian rap on the market, with an understanding of the genre, cannot accuse it of being ugly. It is well made and a joy to listen to, in addition to carrying a wealth of truth.

Bach, as we saw, was accused of “borrowing from unworthy musical sources.” Here we see another accusation offered by the panel at the NCFIC conference, when the cultural origin of hip-hop was mentioned. Certainly, hip-hop originates from anything but a Christ-centered milieu. Indeed, rap music often entertains some of the most unchristian themes and images in all of pop music. How then can believers in submission to Christ embrace this musical style? They can because the style is not the message. Opera often has very sensuous messages, too, but it does not mean opera cannot be used to glorify God. To see this issue from an alternate angle, let us take the example of the Christmas holiday. A couple years ago, I was confronted by a coworker about celebrating the holiday. She was a fellow believer and had seen some material denouncing Christmas, explaining its pagan origins and the pagan roots of common Christmas symbols such as wreaths and evergreen trees. She asked me to watch the presentation, which I did. Looking for help on this subject, I ran across some articles by the Christian Research Institute (with Hank Hannegraff). In one place he observes that

Sometimes it is urged that to take a pagan festival and try to “Christianize” it is folly. However, God Himself did exactly that in the Old Testament. Historical evidence shows conclusively that some of the feasts given to Israel by God through Moses were originally pagan agricultural festivals, which were filled with idolatrous imagery and practices. What God did, in effect, was to establish feasts which would replace the pagan festivals without adopting any of the idolatry or immorality associated with them. It would appear, then, that in principle there is nothing wrong with doing so in the case of Christmas.

This, now, is actually one of the things I celebrate about Christmas. The holiday, created by the Christian church, supplanted pagan festivities. This is not merely using a pagan practice to facilitate Christian observances, but rather, it is a kind of conquering. This same thing can be done for opera; it can be done for pop-rock; it can be done for poetry; and it can be done for rap. Christians should not only be producing rap—they should be producing good rap, and when they do, they take one more part of the world from the god of this world and there plant the flag of Christ.

One of the panelists said that the only defense he has heard for Christian rap is that it is redeeming rap. He opined that in the Bible, redeeming results in “fundamental change,” (his own words), and that he doesn’t see this change in Christian rap. Let me try to unveil the folly of this opinion, if it is not openly apparent. Redeeming cannot mean a “fundamental” change. It does not mean this in Scripture. Redemption means a buying back. It is a restoration. It is fixing that which is broken, not destroying it and starting over. Now, the Christian rap I listen to is absolutely 180 degrees different in its message, posture, and worldview from the rap on the radio (and the rap on traditional radio is the milder stuff, believe me). The only thing that is the same about it is that it is still rap. If this panelist means that to redeem an ungodly art form, it must be so changed that it is no longer that art form, then that is not redemption at all. It is simple rejection. If God “redeemed” us in that way, then we would all be annihilated and replaced with new people. God does not do that. Instead, we are transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light, we are mended—we are restored back to what we always ought to have been, and a fundamental change has not taken place because we are still fundamentally the same persons we were to begin with (again, if we are not, then we have not been redeemed). What this panelist must have really believed is that rap itself is not redeemable. I do not believe that. In fact, I believe that the use of rap for the sake of Christ and the gospel is not only acceptable, but is a manifestation of the dominion of the kingdom of God in the world as rap is taken captive to obey Christ. And I believe this is true in every instance where something good but perverted that was once the domain of Satan is usurped by Christ followers and put in the service of the kingdom of God.

Another objection raised by the panel was that making rap was following the world. Indeed, it was called a cowardly following of the world. Perhaps these panelists were unconscious of the fact that by wearing modern suits and ties, they too were following the world. My point is that once any activity that the Bible does not declare sinful is labelled following the world, where does one stop short of monasticism? Making movies with Christian themes, or using a harpsichord to play a Christian song is also “following the world” strictly speaking, but it is certainly not following the system of the world that is opposed to God. We must be careful to properly define what it means to be following the world. A Christian who makes rap with sensuous, greedy, violent, or boastful lyrics to fit in with his friends or with their expectations is definitely following the world. On the other hand, a Christian who makes rap that declares the true attributes of God is not following the world, even though his music is certifiably rap music. Why? Because the rap music itself is the Lord’s, and it can be used to promote either worldliness or godliness, just as 17th century tunes can be used to promote worldliness or godliness. In fact, I would here like to reiterate that when a Christian makes any artwork, it should be made well, to the best of his ability. The Bible tells Christian musicians to play skillfully (Ps. 33:3, 47:7, Ex. 1 Chr. 25:6,7). Should we expect Christian rap that is well made to sound anything like the rap of the world—say, Jay-Z or Eminem? Yes, of course, because it’s good rap qua rap. As it is evaluated even by those who do not know God but do know rap, it should be deemed quality, because it has been made as unto the Lord.

One of the most encouraging things I could hear that is related to this was from an African American friend of mine at my old job. He was big time into hip-hop music. He read XXL magazine. I introduced him to Lecrae while giving him a ride home one time. Later on, I made him two mix CDs of some of my favorite Christian rap songs from a variety of rappers. Once he got around to listening to the first one, he told me it was “awesome.” He couldn’t believe how good it was. I was so proud to hear it. Friends, that’s how Christian rap ought to impress itself upon the world—as being, not merely tolerated by the church, but attended to with the attention, skill and production value befitting those who labor as slaves of the master Jesus Christ and work their crafts as unto him. I do not say that rap is inappropriate for Christians; I say that poor rap is inappropriate for Christians.

Finally, let me testify to the incredible upsurge of Christian rap within the last decade or so. Like I said, this music has richly blessed me personally. I have marveled at the quantity and quality of the content of contemporary Christian rap. So much of it has been so theologically rich and accurate, that listening has been like attending mini Sunday school lessons. The true gospel and ecclesiology, soteriology, hamartology, anthropology, etc. that I have heard in the music of rappers such as Flame, Trip Lee, Shai Linne, KB, Tedashii, Beautiful Eulogy, Lacrae, Sho Baraka, Ambassador, and (if you want to get a little old school) Cross Movement, has stunned me. These artists are for the most part Reformed, and familiar with Christian documents that are hundreds of years old, as well as being well taught and articulate in doctrinal truths. It is ironic to me, that such messages have come from such an unexpected place: hip-hop. But it is like the Lord to raise up unexpected sources of clarity, teaching, and edification. I see the sovereign prerogative of God, if not the humor, in what the Spirit of God is doing through the work coming out of so unpredictable a corner of the musical and cultural world.

Let me finally defend hip-hop in particular as a channel for gospel truth. Hip-hop seems specially suited to the task of proclamation for a couple reasons. First, hip-hop songs are all about the words. The beat and the instrumentation are present, are there to be heard, and are an essential part of the production, but unlike a classical piece or most other forms of music, the words are the main focus, the central piece. Take away the words from a rock-and-roll song, and you still have rock-and-roll music. Not so with rap. In rap, the words make the style. Rock is music with words. Rap is words with music. Second, in terms of sheer word count, rap is especially equipped to divulge messages at greater length than other pop music. Rap songs fit many more words in the same amount of time as other forms of sung music, and hence are more able to “preach” than other forms of music.

Upon watching the panel yesterday, I was not only disheartened, but embarrassed. Let me say that I would not be embarrassed if the men making the statements were not my brothers in the faith, at least as zealous as I am for the lordship of Jesus Christ. But I think their answers were informed more by prejudice and misunderstanding than the Bible. To close, I am embedding a few videos of rap songs that have encouraged me in the faith, and I hope will likewise encourage you. These videos merely scratch the surface.

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A brief Dialog About Strange Fire

In the wake of John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference on the charismatic movement in the church and the general belief that the revelatory and miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit are in action today. Tim Challies asked Dr. MacArthur a few questions that people had been wondering about. In the comment section following the interview, I added my opinion to one comment in particular, and got a response. When I tried to reply, I found that comments had been closed. So here it is. A user named RyanJay begins by quoting MacArthur:

RyanJay

 “But I do wonder if perhaps their positions are evidence of either the influence of personal relationships with charismatic friends and family members, or the pervasive impact charismatic theology has had on the wider culture” – A disrespectful comment to the years and years of pain-staking study these men have undertaken for the church.  I’m saddened by how MacArthur is choosing to spend these golden years of his life/ministry subtly sowing doubt into the works of men like Piper, Grudem, Stroms as well as others who have spent much time defending the reformed continuationists in a sound, biblical and humble way.

Fuller1754

Doubt into the continuationist works of good men like Piper and Grudem—men I respect—is actually quite appropriate in this case. It seems self-evident to me that doubt ought to be cast upon erroneous teaching, while truth ought to be taught and made clear. To contradict anyone is to “sow doubt,” but sowing doubt about long held false beliefs is nothing but liberating. MacArthur’s doing the right thing here, yet doing it with gentleness and respect.

RyanJay

I whole heartedly agree that doubt should be cast upon erroneous teaching, and in fact the way to do this is by speaking the truth and the truth alone.  Your presupposition leads you to state that being a continuationists is an erroneous teaching and long held false belief.  And since you state that you respect Piper and Grudem I must ask you the question – how is that even possible for you to respect these men who hold such erroneous and false beliefs?  And what if these men are teaching the church these so called erroneous and false beliefs?  I think the tricky part for the cessationists is where do you put these men in your thinking.  They preach the word, they love Jesus, they defend the Gospel and yet they have this “continuationists’ thing about them.

Fuller1754 (My unpublished reply)

Let me give another example: I believe dispensationalism is an erroneous teaching, too. John MacArthur is a dispensationalist, but I obviously have great respect for him. If I did not have respect for any Christian teachers I thought adhered to any erroneous belief, my choices would be slim indeed, and my attitude would be all wrong. I don’t know if I can think of almost any major Christian teacher whom I don’t believe holds to some erroneous belief or another—whether it has to do with eschatology, the law, baptism, or whatever.

I respect Grudem and Piper because they are great men of understanding and of faith. Why shouldn’t I? They do preach the Word; they do love Jesus. I own Grudem’s systematic theology, and coincidentally am taking my wife and myself through a John Piper devotional book right now. It seems completely incongruous to me that someone who has a disagreement with a Bible teacher at some point could not also have great respect for that teacher overall—even if it’s a disagreement about something important. Continuationism is no less erroneous and false. I still love those guys. I really don’t see the contradiction.

Now I would have to ask you: must you avoid coming to a conclusion on any topic about which godly people disagree? Because if you assume you cannot respect teachers whom you disagree with, then if you do come to conclusions about these things, you would lose respect for many a respectable man of God.

Called not to be the Same

Israel was chosen by God to be his people. From Moses until Christ, the Jews were set apart by God as a special possession for himself, and they served as a living picture, a living parable, for the kingdom of God on earth. As such, they were to be a holy people, differentiated from all the other people groups around them. In fact, some of the laws given to the Israelites were meant to figure this separation and purity, such as those in Deuteronomy 22:9 against sowing a field with two kinds of grain, wearing a garment of mixed fabrics, or plowing with an ox and a donkey together. Israel was a set-apart people. And they prefigured the New Testament church.

Christians—you and I—are the Israel God is now working with. Too many Christians want to minimize or eliminate the differences between themselves and the people around them. There is constant pressure brought upon us to conform to the reining modes of thinking of this age. Such pressure was heavy upon Israel, too, who was always dealing with temptation to worship the gods of the surrounding nations. We are beset with the pressure to worship the gods everyone around us is worshipping. Those gods include fornication, homosexuality, moral relativism, religious relativism, and the concept that God is not really angry at anyone (except child molesters and Hitler). Or the god that there is no God and that human beings are the result of a physics crapshoot. There is pressure to accept all religions as equally valid to Christianity, and not to make moral declarations based on the Bible. There is pressure to say that any sincere belief in God is good enough for him—you don’t have to approach God specifically through Jesus Christ.

But Christians are called to be set apart from the world in their thinking, their practice, and how they see reality. We are called to bring our thoughts into submission to Christ and to declare his truth to the world. We are called not be the same. People of the world hate the light of the Scripture because they love their sin. They love it so much, they will invent all kinds of arguments to defend their way of life and will slander those who say they are wrong, sometimes viciously. We must take courage in those times, trust God, and be faithful to the message he has delivered to us. If the Bible says marriage is a union between a man and a woman only, then so must we. If the Bible says no one can come to God except through conscious faith in Jesus, then so must we. If the Bible says you can’t divorce your spouse except in cases of adultery or abandonment, then so must we.

And we must say these things out loud. Christians are not called to a cloister. We are called to be separate from the world in the midst of the world. And this may be the hardest thing. We have friends in the world; we are not friends with the world. We go about our business in the world; we are not yoked to the world. We participate in civics as citizens of the world; we are wayfarers passing through. It takes courage to have a different mindset than the prevailing mindset of the culture around you. But the cultural mindset leads to death. We must not adjust the message of the Scriptures to accommodate modern beliefs. Instead, we call on the world to change to accommodate God’s message. Christians must stand firm in the face of opposition in proclaiming God’s eternal truths to the world and so save some. That is true love. The truth brings life. Do not be conformed to this present world, Christian, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

The Creator and the Creation

A while ago I was thinking about nature and the universe and the things that the universe is made of. What exists now in the universe is what has always existed in it since its beginning. The universe is a closed system—a big one, but a closed system ultimately. When we look around at the stuff of the universe, we see a set of energy and matter that must remain constant. That is to say, energy cannot be added to the closed system of the universe, nor can it be removed. The energy in the universe is constantly being recycled, in a way, as it changes forms, but is never spontaneously generated or annihilated.

This makes sense. You cannot ultimately get rid of something, you can only change it. Even when I try to destroy something, the matter it contained must still go somewhere, it must still be somewhere, even if it’s in a million little pieces. Likewise, when we build something (like a bookshelf) it is only made of preexisting material. When we “generate electricity,” we are only transforming existing energy into a useable form, and once we “use it up,” we have but changed it back into a form we cannot use for mechanical work.

So, enough physics. I was thinking about the material of the universe itself and its creation by God, and as I did so, I realized I could not comprehend the creation of something new from nothing. I cannot understand the emergence of brand new matter or energy. So I wondered if perhaps the universe is an extension of the energy of God himself—if the elements emanate from God’s essence. If they are ultimately part of God. For where else could they come from? They had to come from somewhere, didn’t they?

But I soon realized this was pantheism. The universe, with all its elements and energies, is not an extension of God, but God’s separate creation. God created something other than himself. He created a thing that did not exist before. The Bible says in Romans 4 that God “calls into existence the things that do not exist.” Christianity does not teach that the world or human beings are an extension or concrete expression of the divine being or essence, but that God transcends his creation, is above it, is greater than it, and is other than it. God by the power of his word called into original existence things that had no existence before. Indeed, he upholds the creation continuously by his word, so that if he ceased to do so, it would dissolve into a state of inert uniformity in which no energy would be available for use. God is so powerful he could create things out of nothing. I still cannot comprehend it, but God is beyond human comprehension, and so is his act of creation. It is very important, though, that the Creator and his creation not be conflated.

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